Zoocasa, the online real estate brokerage owned by Rogers Communications Inc., has become the latest to bow to renewed pressure to stop publishing highly coveted data on home sales.
The web-based brokerage, which acts as a referral service for roughly 500 agents across the country, announced on Friday that as of March 4 it will stop sending out a popular daily e-mail detailing the price of recently sold homes.
The Toronto Real Estate Board sent a letter to all members this month warning that those who violate strict rules on sharing sales data could lose access to the Multiple Listings Service, the lifeblood of most realtors. The letter also prompted Bosley Real Estate to strip data on sales from a mobile app it offers to prospective home buyers.
The warning by the real estate board is the latest development in a battle that has been raging for years over how much data real estate brokers can make public, particularly online. While Canada's largest local real estate board allows traditional bricks and mortar brokerages to hand out data on recent sale prices to clients, it has been cracking down on the growing number of online-only real estate brokerages, known in the industry as "virtual office websites," that have been offering the same data in bulk to the public.
Under current rules, online brokerages can only provide data to subscribers, not on publicly accessible websites, and only with the permission of the buyer and seller. The real estate board warned that some virtual brokers have recently been pushing the limits.
"TREB has agreements and rules in place," the board said in a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail. "But more importantly, there are laws and regulations, including privacy, contractual and [regulatory] rules that apply with which TREB and realtor members must comply."
Industry players, however, say the recent crackdown is a sign that the real estate board is trying to reaffirm its position on the issue ahead of an upcoming hearing in front of the federal Competition Tribunal in May.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal of the case between the board and Canada's Competition Bureau, setting the stage for yet another round of tribunal hearings. The case is being closely watched across the country and will have major implications for all of Canada's real estate boards and brokers when it's finally settled.
Darryl Mitchell, Zoocasa's broker of record, said the company is confident that its daily newsletter, which had thousands of subscribers, met the TREB guidelines. But it didn't want to risk straining its relationship with the board. "I suppose there's two distinct ways of doing business and that's just waiting until somebody sends you a legal letter and shuts you down, or trying to co-operate with what they're trying to do," he said. "We felt we should try and work with them instead of against them."
A thorny issue for the industry is the fact that sales data is usually posted to TREB's database right after a deal has been finalized, but before the transaction has actually closed, meaning subscribers to sales lists are able to access information on deals that are technically still in progress. That has left the board in the awkward position of trying to comply with privacy laws, while also facing pressure from the Competition Bureau to make information more publicly available.
"They're caught in this middle ground," Mr. Mitchell said. "We said we really don't want to be on the opposite side of the battle with TREB."
Toronto real estate broker Fraser Beach, whose past legal battles with the real estate board helped land the issue on the radar of the Competition Bureau, said he has no plans to shut down his own daily newsletter which links roughly 30,000 subscribers with the real estate board's sales data.
"I'm taking it day by day," said Mr. Beach, who received the same warning letter as all other brokers, but hasn't been sanctioned. "I really don't think that there's any legal or more problem with this," he said. "But that's not to say that, basically with impunity, the Toronto Real Estate Board could sever my access to the MLS information, which would virtually put you out of business."